‘The Principles of Pleasure’ a 3-part limited series directed by Niharika Desai and narrated by actress Michelle Buteau, premiered on Netflix in March 2022. This eye-opening, in-depth documentary explores female sexual pleasure and is a revolutionary attempt by the creators to equip women with knowledge about their bodies, empowering them to take ownership of their own desires.
A few minutes into the first episode, the narrator asks a very compelling question: “If you could go back in time and learn more about your body, about sex, and how to embrace your desires without fear, how would the rest of your life be different?” And with this question begins a fearless, well-researched, and inclusive sex education class, unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before.
Sex Is A Basic Need No One Talks About
Growing up as a cis-het woman in India, my earliest memories of sex education was a single Biology class in my all-girls conservative English-medium school. Our teacher hurriedly ran through a series of complicated diagrams about the male and female anatomy without explaining anything beyond the specific biological process. Of course, we had a LOT of questions but none of them could be addressed in the thirty-minute time frame of that single class. The understanding was that sex is something that cannot be discussed in school or within our families. To make matters more confusing, subtle lessons in ‘purity’ and ‘decency’ were meted out in abundance – don’t wear your skirt short, never keep your long hair open or in a ponytail – always make two oily braids, anyone caught wearing nail polish or kajal may face detention, staring or talking to boys during school fests or trips is strictly not allowed, so on and so forth.
Also read: Can The Art Of Faking Orgasms Be Theorised?
Like most privileged teenagers growing up in the late 2000s, at least my friends and I had access to a few sexually explicit romance novellas published by ‘Mills & Boon’ along with movies like ‘Pretty Woman’, ‘Titanic’ or ‘American Pie’ that played on Star Movies back then, thankfully uncensored. But even they were teaching us all the wrong things, as the documentary explains. Mainstream cinema and pop-culture has always portrayed pleasure as something that only cis-het, able-bodied, and conventionally attractive women should have access to. Leaving a lot of us with life-long body image issues and a very linear understanding of what pleasure should look like.
From the word go, sex was confusing – it seemed extremely enjoyable but the only lessons we were taught on it was how to save ourselves at all costs for the ‘right’ man. The documentary very carefully explores all these topics to better understand the reasons behind these constant mixed signals given by society to women in order to control us better.
Debunking Myths And Understanding The Female Body
Historically, female sexuality was considered to be the reason behind problematic behaviour, diseases, anxiety, and depression in women, explains psychologist Dr. Lori Brotto in the first part of the series. The misunderstanding ran so deep that apparently for the longest time the Greeks were under the impression that the uterus often wandered around in a woman’s body creating havoc, causing them to behave in a hysterical way. Hence the word hysteria is rooted in the Greek word hystéra, meaning “womb” or “uterus.”
Thanks to Sigmund Freud, who dismissed the clitoris and the clitoral orgasm altogether, the clitoris as a female body part was not even included or recognised in the 1948 publication of Grey’s Anatomy. Researchers William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson (their storyline too has been adapted as a popular Netflix series called ‘Masters of Sex’) released a pioneering study in 1966 which welcomed the clitoris back into the fold of female sexuality. It was only in 2005 that Australian urologist Helen O’Connell made a breakthrough by mapping the entire clitoris for the first time ever.
Through a graphic timeline and witty narration, the series traces the history and various landmark moments that contributed to our current understanding of female sexual pleasure. By touching upon various myths surrounding virginity and the hymen or the infamous G-spot, The Principles of Pleasure gradually but interestingly peels away years of societal conditioning that women are subjected to.
An Emerging Safe Space For Everyone
The best part about this limited series is that it dares to go into territories that are extremely important but don’t seem to generate much conversation. It drives us to reflect upon and question the orgasm gap, the role of consent in every relationship, and a pervasive unwillingness in the science community to recognise anyone beyond the cisgender white man when it comes to understanding pleasure.
But instead of just delving into the problems, the series also tries to help women and those who identify as a part of the LGBTQIA+ community take ownership of their bodies and pleasure. Sex educator and researcher, Emily Nagoski, author of the book “Come As You Are”, Dirty Lola who describes herself as a witty edutainer, Swedish erotic film director and producer Erika Lust, among others, show us a ray of light at the end of a dark tunnel. From a variety of sex toys that eliminate the need for a partner to pornography written and created specifically for women by producers like Erika, the docuseries makes an honest and informed attempt to empower those who have been left out from the pleasure conversation for so long.
Let’s Normalise Talking About Sex
It is scary to think how millions of women in India are prepared to be married off since the day they are born, yet there is hardly any healthy conversation around their sexual well-being. Pleasure is a basic need and we need to talk more about it so that we can inform teenagers about the importance of consent, so that every time a young unmarried girl walks into a gynaecologist’s office, she isn’t shamed for being sexually active, so that more women understand that most of the times they are actually not orgasming at all but they have every right to. We need to talk more about it so that we stop seeing cis-het able-bodied conventionally-attractive sexual encounters only on screen and have more content depicting a variety of experiences.
The show leaves us with something crucial to think about. Pleasure is as much about the mind as it is about the genitals. It pushes us to understand that and find a connection between our mind and body to understand what works for us, what we haven’t dared to explore at all, and where we may simply draw the line. So ladies, gear up to watch this gem of a documentary series this weekend because it’s going to be a truly ‘pleasurable’ experience.
Shreya Sarkar has a Master’s degree in English Literature from Jadavpur University and currently works as an advertising copywriter. She is particularly interested in content created by women, for other women. She loves reading, practicing pottery, and taking care of her two dog babies. You can find her on Instagram and Facebook.